Published On: Tue, Apr 16th, 2013

A Syrian exile tells her story: ‘It was never meant to be like this’

Reem looks out over the London skyline Ben Gurr for The Times

Martin Fletcher

Published at 12:01AM, April 16 2013
Reem never imagined that she would one day flee her country. Now she wonders if she will ever see her family again

Let us call her Reem. If you passed her on a London street you would have no inkling of the terror this intelligent, articulate young woman has endured, nor the anguish she still lives with. But as a member of Syria’s ruling Alawite minority who supports the uprising, she embodies the misery of her imploding homeland.

Reem now lives in exile in Britain. Her parents remain in Damascus, facing the real prospect of being killed by the shells that rain down daily on the capital, or slaughtered by vengeful rebels when the Assad regime finally falls. She has no idea when, if ever, she will be able to go home or see her family again.

Reem cannot even be identified for this article. Her parents would face fearful retribution for her betrayal of her Alawite “tribe”, even though she led a double life over the past two years and never told them she was working for the opposition.

“I am horrified,” she says. “It was never meant to be like this.”

Before the uprising began 25 months ago, Reem was a student with friends of every background — Alawite, Sunni Muslim, Christian. They knew each others’ religions, and sometimes joked about them, but “we didn’t fixate on ethnicity or sect”. On the contrary, they were united by their hatred of a regime that sought to control even the music they listened to.

They thought the revolution would be quick, peaceful and non-sectarian — that President Assad would be forced to resign after a couple of months and the people would take over; they thought it would be one in which Syrians could be proud — nothing like the bloodbath in Libya or chaos in Egypt. When, after a month, Assad made a speech promising widespread reform, Reem was briefly inclined to believe him — but then the violent crackdown began.

Being female, Reem could not join the street demonstrations. Instead, she became an online activist, working in secret because her father was a former military officer and her parents were staunch Assad supporters living in an affluent area of Damascus.

She sat in her room for hours at a time, pretending to study but actually uploading video clips and photographs on to the internet so the outside world could see what was happening inside Syria. Fluent in English, she also translated foreign newspaper articles into Arabic to counter the regime’s brainwashing of the population through relentless propaganda.

She wiped all incriminating information from her phone and laptop whenever she went outside. Like so many other internet activists, she used proxies to conceal her address but lived in constant fear of the proverbial knock on the door. Informers stalked the internet, taking screenshots of people’s Facebook pages and sending them to the intelligence service. Friends were detained and interrogated. As a woman she would face sexual harassment or worse. As an Alawite, she could expect to be treated extra harshly by the Alawite-led security services for betraying her people. Her family would be shamed and treated as outcasts.

“I was living in fear of everything,” she says. She trusted no one except her closest friends, and many of her fellow revolutionaries suspected her of being an Alawite spy. “It was a state of paranoia.”

As the months passed, the regime’s brutality grew. First it fired at demonstrations, then it began detaining, torturing and killing opponents, and now it bombs its cities and civilians. “Every time they set a limit they went and exceeded it,” she says.

Reem’s disillusion grew in tandem. The shocking images she and her fellow activists posted on the internet were achieving little. “We thought the world would be able to stop two or three hundred people dying every day. Then it became evident they were going to do nothing about it.

“It’s a disgrace: 100,000 people killed, half of them women and children, and massacres, torture, suppression every day … Each country is pulling strings according to what would benefit them. No one is doing anything for our people. Our work became about documenting the atrocities so they would never be forgotten. It was no longer a cry for help.”

Reem’s undoing began one day last July when she went out with a camera to take photographs of a Damascus street destroyed by bombs. “I felt good,” she said. “I felt like I was doing proper journalism, not just clerk’s work.”

Rashly, she took the camera out the next day, too, believing her sex would save her from being searched. She and her friend were stopped at a checkpoint. The soldiers found her pictures and demanded to know who she was working for. They threatened to take her to the nearest intelligence headquarters, or directly to prison. They asked what she would do to avoid arrest: meaning sex.

“I was terrified. I was thinking, ‘This is it. This is the day I am publicly shamed in front of my family. This is where my life ends’.” But she put on her strongest Alawite accent, her friend paid a soldier a bribe, and after 20 minutes they were let go.

Less than a week later, the dreaded knock on the door did come.

Intelligence agents told her mother that someone had been spotted taking photographs from the house. Her mother denied it. So did Reem, though she had indeed been taking pictures of distant explosions and the billowing black smoke that they generated. Her mother protested that they were a military family and Alawites, which only made matters worse.

“They said, ‘You’re Alawite and doing this? You want the rebels to kill us?’ ”

They finally left, taking Reem’s camera with them, but she had managed to remove its memory card. Neighbours had witnessed the scene. Her family had been humiliated.

Reem says that her parents initially believed Assad’s claims that the uprising was led by armed terrorists and extremists. “They fell for the propaganda, like so many others.” But their support for Assad began to erode when the regime started bombing the capital last summer. They began lamenting that the uprising had not been handled differently. It should not have come to this, they would say in lowered voices. But even in the privacy of their home, criticism was taboo.

Reem’s parents may or may not have suspected their daughter of helping the opposition but by the autumn they were pressing her to leave the country. Finally, in October, she did, taking a cab to Beirut after a tearful farewell. “I didn’t know when I would see them again.”

Reem now lives with friends in London, physically safe but mentally anguished. She Skypes her parents whenever she can but nowadays the internet in Damascus goes down for days at a time. Her father was recently hit by shrapnel and spent three days in hospital. Even as Reem is talking, she receives news that a barrage of rockets has hit her parents’ neighbourhood.

“Every day I hear of someone I know being killed. Every day at sunset I thank God [that my parents] didn’t die, but it’s a matter of time before I hear bad news about them.”

She knows they are frequently without electricity, had no gas for heating during the winter and now struggle to find bread.

“People are just hopeless and terrified and lives are being shattered,” she says . When someone is killed they say, ‘Elly bemout beirtah’ — an Arabic phrase that roughly translates as “The one who dies is the one who is fine.”

She knows, too, that the regime is raiding homes to force young Alawites to enlist in the overstretched military, that Alawite support for the regime is falling as those conscripts are killed, and that many Alawites continue to back the regime only for fear of the retribution that would follow its collapse. Some are fleeing to neighbouring countries; others are leaving Damascus for the relative safety of coastal cities such as Tartus and Latakia, both Alawite strongholds.

However bad things are, Reem fears they will become worse when the Assad regime eventually falls, and when the Sunni-led rebels and their jihadist allies flood into Damascus. She fears a bloodbath, an orgy of retribution against the Alawite community. “In Damascus they are very, very scared. They’re afraid they will be raided by angry, vengeful people who will slay them,” she says.

The ultimate irony is that an uprising that she actively supported could culminate not just in the deaths of her parents, but in her permanent exile from her homeland.

If the jihadists prevail and turn Syria into a hardline Islamic state she could never return, never live under their religious strictures, never explain that she worked for the revolution despite being Alawite. “They don’t care,” she says. “If the Islamists take over there will be no life for me in Syria. We went through the revolution to have a free Syria and this would be exactly the opposite.”

She blames the world’s indifference for the calamity that has befallen her native land. “I never dreamt the revolution would start in my country, and when it did I never thought it would be like this,” she says. “I never thought it would become a full sectarian civil war like now.”